I was in the pub recently with award-winning blogger Woolpack Dave and his partner Woolpack Anne. The conversation between Dave and I (Anne, despite being entirely sober, was nodding off) was about what we look for in a beer; the quest, the never-ending search for the next great beer.
Ten years ago I was infatuated with American IPAs. I thought they were the be all and end all. My first couple of trips to California in the late nineties had convinced me that big, bold and assertive beers were the future. This thought was part of the inspiration for creating Microbar. I wanted to bring a bit of the US's craft beer culture to the UK.
Since then, I have mellowed in my view. I like to think my understanding of what sells to whom and why (in the socio-demographic and individual senses) is rather good. Years of experience and observation have tempered my enthusiasm for hop-blasts and caused me to re-appraise my early view of them as saviours of beer (I still love them and crave them especially here in Cumbria where one hop cone is passed around the various breweries for a waft over the wort).
No, today I'm looking for something that transcends the thrill of blasts of flavour and bitterness.
I'm wary of the description "balanced". For me, that word brings to mind obsessions of an older generation of cask ale drinkers: the regional brewers, sessionability, CAMRA and boring brown beer. "Balanced" is too close to "b*lan**d" for my liking.
There is no single word for what I'm looking for. Here's a selection that go some way toward describing what I crave: harmony, complexity, layeredness, aroma, integration, surprise, poise, nuance, finish, moreishness.
I hope that those descriptors give you some insight into my selection for Jeff's Beer of the Year 2009.
GOLD: Anderson Valley's Boont Amber. I first came across this on draught in a bar in San Francisco in 2003. Since then I've dreamed of its symphony of malt and superlative but subtle hop character. Fortunately someone had the good sense to bring some in for the GBBF.
|From GBBF '09|
SILVER: Budvar. Yes good old "ordinary" Budvar. Throughout the year I've regularly been noticing that Budvar has gained hop character in a particularly beautiful way – it meets all, rather than just several of my criteria. Many times I thought my mind must be playing tricks on me as it's such a well-established and familiar beer. Anticipating having my mental health questioned I asked the chaps from Budvar UK if there had been any change to the beer in recent months. Breezily they replied "Oh, that's since the new head brewer took over last January." I swooned. The brilliance of my tastebuds confirmed!
BRONZE: Jarrow Brewery McConnells Celebratory Port Stout. Neither really stouty or porty, nonetheless a great beer - undercurrents of treacle, chocolate and coffee with an abundant smack of hoppy orangey fruitiness. Despite pseudo-Victorian pumpclip imagery, it's actually quite modern in its flavour profile.
There are many, many more deserving of honourable mentions. If I get time later I'll add some. Now I'm off to start my Christmas shopping.